One of our family's goals is to be constantly broadening our horizons. This we try to achieve through interacting with people who have different perspectives, reading as much as we can, and watching great documentaries that we get from the public library. One other important way we try to achieve this is through travel. Overlanding, because of how it helps us see and experience more than any other form of travel that we can easily do, is our travel choice.
So, we went overlanding in Baja Norte, Mexico for 8 days, leaving a few days before Christmas and returning to Prescott, Arizona on New Year's Eve.
Given our family's goals, Baja was a logical choice. We were already in Prescott, Arizona so Baja was just 6 hours away. Camping was inexpensive (we paid no more than 15 USD a night and sometimes as little as 6 USD) and there were opportunities for boon-docking, which meant it was free. Delicious food was easily available and cheap. We also had assurances from people we trust (Scott Brady and Chris Collard, Overland Journal's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief respectively) that Baja was quite a safe destination.
Armed with that information, we knew that we would be more than safe enough with our 2 German Shepherds. Besides the fact that we enjoy their company, it was way cheaper to bring them with us than to kennel them for 8 days, even after paying for a veterinarian to certify their good health as required by Mexican law (although the paperwork was not asked for at the border).
Most importantly, Baja gave us an opportunity to experience a place and people culturally very different from USA and Canada. I was looking forward to this most of all.
I am happy to report that Baja does not disappoint. It was absolutely lovely for our family. We enjoyed its physical geography, friendly people and delicious food.
The physical geography of Baja Norte is amazing. We drove a loop, starting in Mexicali, then to San Felipe, Bahia De Los Angeles, Catavina, San Quintin, Ensenada and finally to Tecate. This covered approximately 420 miles and we enjoyed and appreciated how varied the scenery was. In the distance we covered, we saw dry and arid land with brown grass, rocky mountains, plains, vineyards, the Sea of Cortez, the Pacific Ocean and extinct volcanoes. With this magnificent scenery comes the accompanying flora and fauna and the activities that we engage in to experience more of what nature is offering.
When we were south of San Felipe, it was wonderful for our boys to be able to kayak with their dad, see a pod of humpback whales, a sea lion and flocks of pelicano diving into the water to catch fish just meters from the kayaks. We got used to hearing while lying inside our tent at night, the waves crash on the shore. At Catavina, it was as described in Mexican Camping: Explore Mexico or Belize with RV or Tent by Mike and Terri Church (Rolling Homes Press, 2005), "the road threads its way for several miles through a jumble of huge granite boulders sprinkled liberally with attractive cacti and desert plants . . . a photographer's paradise." Our middle son, Seamus, insisted that Ray park our truck as close to a rocky bluff as possible, saying, "Climbing these rocks will satisfy me for the rest of the day."
On our first morning in San Felipe, Liam, our oldest, filled a plastic bag to the brim with sea shells. These we were to bring back to Prescott both as gifts for friends as well as to be the start of his hence private collection. "Of course!" I thought to myself. He collects rocks in British Columbia and sea shells in Baja. Well, at least, sea shells are a lot lighter." Lest you think we are mean parents, Liam collects rocks the size of my fist.
At Bahia San Luis Gonzaga, Seamus spent hours building a sand castle - oops, sorry Seamus, I got it wrong again - it was no mere sand castle, it was Saruman's tower (Saruman being the evil wizard from The Lord of the Rings, the tower being the one he had Gandalf imprisoned on). He intentionally made a ring of big rocks around the tower to see what would happen to the tower and ring of rocks after the overnight high tide.
Declan, our youngest, happily accompanied his dad taking photographs of the scenery.
On the beach at Bahia De Los Angeles, the boys found upon our arrival after sunset, the shell of a sea turtle. They were very impressed with its size. From front to back, it spanned the length of my entire arm.
Interacting with the people of Baja was something the whole family was very appreciative of. The people we met were warm and friendly, even the soldiers at the checkpoints throughout our drive through Baja were amiable.
On our very first evening in Baja, we had dinner at the restaurant at Pete's Camp, north of San Felipe. We were given a personal lesson in Spanish by the lovely waitress who served our table. We could not have asked for a better teacher. She spoke to us in Spanish, complete with an English translation when we looked perplexed, introduced us to simple and frequently used Spanish words that we could handle, and gently corrected our pronunciation. We had come to Baja armed with hola, uno, dos, and tres, (thanks to watching Dora the Explorer years ago) and a few photocopied pages of "Survival Spanish" from Frommer's Mexico. We left after dinner equipped with enough Spanish to eat well and politely.
South of San Felipe, we got to know a local fisherman, Isaac and his family where we boon-docked. Our boys had a fine time playing with Isaac's son, Isaiah. They played frisbee together, took turns flying a kite we had brought with us, and just played for hours in the sand. We shared our beer with Isaac and he shared his dried fish with us.
He also showed us how he made fish soup from dried fish, onions and tomatoes. This was accompanied with Isaac's wife, Maria's homemade tortillas. Later, when he went into San Felipe, we helped him keep an eye on his fishing nets. The fact that he and his family only spoke Spanish, and ours is limited to what the waitress taught us, did nothing to hinder communication. It was like playing charades. Sometimes a challenge, but always fun.
Food is important to our family and we had heard much about Baja's famous fish tacos before we left. We more than satisfied ourselves with fish tacos that we bought from roadside stands. We had no issues from eating food from the roadside stalls and I have to say they were the best tacos I have ever eaten. What Ray and I try to do when we overland is to eat where the locals eat because the locals know where the food is most delicious and you can be assured that they are at prices locals can afford. But we had more than fish tacos. On our first morning in San Felipe, we stopped at the very first taco stand we came across. We had no idea what tacos they were serving but there was a local family eating there and that was the unspoken recommendation we were looking for. It was cool to watch the cook lift an entire cow's skull from the pot. He then proceeded to remove meat in one piece from the inside of the skull with his pair of tongs. It was delicious. Declan still talks about the tacos he ate at that stall and how good they were.
On our last day in Baja, we ate lunch at San Quintin. They were delicious carnitas tacos. We watched one of the cooks deep fry huge hunks of pork in a vat of oil. These were then chopped fine and made crisp on a hot plate by another cook. It was served with the right balance of meat and crunchy fat.
One of the things we noticed about the taco stands was how each stand served a different and unique selection of condiments, which we all relished (our family is big on sauces). We love trying them all and finding out which ones we liked the best with our tacos. The ones we came across ranged from the ubiquitous lettuce or cabbage and most common salsa (diced tomatoes and onions) to chilli oil, pickled onions, chipotle, tomatillo and habenero salsas. We watched the cook at the stall at Bahia De Los Angeles put habanero, onion, vinegar and "Knorr" seasoning in a blender and voila! the mucho picante (very spicy, we were warned) salsa was ready to be drizzled on our freshly fried battered fish nestling in our maiz (corn, we learned that too) tacos.
We chose to camp in Baja. Out of the eight nights we spent in Baja, there were only 2 places we spent 2 nights at. All other places were for one night. It was not our intention when we headed for Baja to camp in 6 different places but it is what happened due to a change in plans.
Camping can be a lot of work especially when it doesn't come with amenities that make it easier. The great thing about Baja is that you have choice. With the help of books like the earlier cited Mexican Camping, (you may want to look for a more up-to-date version or even better, look for "Camping Mexico's Baja" by the same authors.) and The Baja Adventure Book by Walt Peterson (Wilderness Press, 2006), you can find campgrounds and motels that suit your needs and budget. We looked for campsites that offered what our boys wanted, camping right on a nice sandy beach.
As far as eating went, I took to heart what I had read in Scott Brady's "Baja Adventure Guide" in the Fall 2011 issue of Overland Journal. "The food in Mexico is some of the best in the world and it is cheap. There are big grocers in the larger cities . . . smaller towns will always have a market with basic sundries, and there is always a restaurant or two." My boys are fairly flexible eaters; all that matters to them is having regular and delicious meals. I brought enough food (refrigerated and canned) to last us 2 days. As much as we were planning to buy most of our food in Baja either cooked or uncooked, I like having the option of not having to look for food especially should we happen to roll into a remote campsite with no grocery store, food stall or restaurant in walking distance.
Our meals were a mixture of food we brought from the States, from local Baja mini-markets or supermarkets depending on the size of the town we were in, food stalls and restaurants. My favorite meals were the ones at the roadside taco stands. They were delicious and inexpensive. The entire bill for our family of 5 (3 boys who are big eaters and two parents), at the taco stands was always between 15-20 USD, including drinks (beer, juices, and sodas)
You could go to a restaurant to get your meat, starch and vegetables, or these ingredients can be purchased at the markets in the larger towns easily. I was prepared to cook according to what I could find in the grocery stores. Fresh fish, already cleaned and filleted, we enjoyed for a couple of dinners. We used them to make our own fish tacos with corn tortillas, thinly sliced cabbage, diced onions and Trader Joe's Tartar Sauce with Jalapeno and Dill. The last item I brought with us from the States, of course. As you can probably tell, our family is partial to fish so I felt our favorite tartar sauce was worth packing.
Another dinner, made from ingredients bought in a little grocery store in Bahia De Los Angeles, was beef chorizo and 2 cans of black beans. The black beans added to the fried chorizo made some of the best chile-con-carne I have ever had. Eaten with tortillas, it was fast, easy and a real crowd-pleaser.
I would do Baja again in a heart beat. The only problem is now I want us to overland the rest of Mexico first. Ray . . . hello? Are you reading this?